When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Managing

Plus: A Good Idea from Oregon, the truth about state "wellness programs," and more
September 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Help us, please. We're about to give a couple of speeches focusing on the question of whether today's tough fiscal times have led to better management in the states, counties and localities. What do you think? And do you have any concrete examples to make your point?

Here's one we kind of like: Georgia plans on saving about $900,000 a year by shutting down warehouses that were used to store surplus cars, desks and other equipment, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Instead of spending money to store the stuff and move it to the warehouses, the state is going to start moving unneeded assets on the Web, though sites like eBay and GovDeals.com.

Know of similar examples? Or do you have other thoughts on whether financial pressure leads to better management? E-mail us!

States and the federal government might be able to save a fair amount of money if they paid attention to some developments in Oregon, according to the Government Accountability Office. Only two states, California and Oregon, have requirements that paid tax preparers have some kind of formal accreditation in order to fill out tax forms. Oregon has the more stringent of the two: a two-tiered licensing system that includes education requirements, state-administered examinations and work-experience prerequisites.

The results, according to the GAO: "Oregon returns were more likely to be accurate ... compared to the rest of the country. ... In dollar terms, the average Oregon return required approximately $250 less of a change in tax liability than the average return" elsewhere.

The GAO is wary of stating that there's absolute cause and effect here, indicating that there may be other factors at play. But it sure seems like a practice worthy of further research. And, though the GAO doesn't say this, it would seem likely that similarly dramatic improvements would be found in other states that adopted these kinds of regulations.

When cities, counties and states talk about "wellness programs," they're often sold on faith that thinner, happier, smoke-free employees will be less costly. Now, along comes Columbus, Ohio, with a little solid evidence. "Medical costs for employees and their families rose only 3 percent in 2007," according to the Columbus Dispatch, "compared with the 6.7 percent nationwide jump estimated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

Among the initiatives that seem to be paying off are "Biggest Loser"-style weight-loss competitions, free flu shots, discounted health club memberships, yoga classes and free blood-pressure and cholesterol screenings.

In these perilous economic times, there have been a bunch of articles in business magazines and newspapers suggesting that municipal bonds that are relatively close to maturing are a good way for folks to get good, comparitively safe returns on their money.

Maybe this is true. But the number of articles pushing this advice present a good reason to be concerned about the fact that "more than half of the municipal bonds sold between 1996 and 2005 have been delinquent in filing financial disclosures, showing the secondary market disclosure system for the municipal market is flawed," according to a recent piece in the Bond Buyer .

About a quarter of the issues are in chronic delinquency, the piece reported, meaning they are missing three or more years of disclosures. "There is virtually no enforcement in the secondary market, it's not taken seriously," said Peter J. Schmitt, president of DPC Data Inc., which conducted the study. "There are no consequences for not filing, and what you get is bad disclosure behavior."

Earmarking is a hot topic right now, both in the presidential race and among state and local officials. Every few days we hear a politician complaining about a ridiculous-sounding project that's gotten government funding. This covers a lot of territory. Most of them seem to pertain either to infrastructure or to some kind of research project that sounds silly to the general public.

Let's get one thing straight. We're not in favor of wantonly throwing money into projects just because they wind up in the right legislator's district. But we're a little concerned that some of the programs that wind up as laugh lines in politicians' speeches may in fact be worthwhile places to spend taxpayer dollars. Fifty years ago, say, wouldn't it have seemed ridiculous to spend government dollars studying windmills? There's a danger, we think, that in the hunt for wasteful spending, we may inadvertently be using a shotgun instead of a rifle.

Some 21 states offer localities the option of joining their state health benefit systems. This sure sounds like a sensible idea. In theory, it should provide significant economies of scale.

But here's an alarming fact, revealed by the Office of Legislative Research in Connecticut. Of those 21 states, only one -- California -- has studied the results. This absence of follow-through is, in our view, one of the single most serious shortcomings in state management. As for California, the state believes that "local government participation has reduced the state plan's annual premium costs by about $40 million a year."

That's good to know. But why haven't the other 20 states done similar research? (By the way, kudos to Connecticut. Its Office of Legislative Research Web site is one of the most interesting around. Analysts go a step further than in many other states, with well-researched and complete assessments of how different programs and policies of local interest play out in states around the country.)

Manager's Reading List: Our ongoing feature about books to read, recommended by B&G readers

From Cory Smith, city administrator of Grandview, Missouri: "I would suggest that managers read 'A Whole New Mind' by Daniel Pink. Based on a good deal of research, it gives a totally different perspective on left brain/right brain thinking, the evidence that successful people are using more right brain concepts, and how this will affect jobs and productivity in this country in the future."

And from Julie Bauer, human resources assistant with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: "I recommend Bill McKibben's 'Deep Economy.' It gives you an alternative look at local economy and how it might be developed."

Please keep your recommendations rolling in. We've actually been purchasing all the books you folks suggest, and if we ever have time to read them all, we'll be really, really smart.

More Manager's Reading List suggestions here and here.

A few months back, we pointed out that the Washington State Patrol had been rated as the best-dressed in the country, and we speculated that maybe that would have genuine impact on the way the troopers did their jobs. Last month, we reported that the same corps were in fact, rated at the top of the heap by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Not that we're sticklers for elegant attire, but with this in mind, we're moved to give some attention to a wrangle taking place in West Virginia. The state's Department of Health and Human Resources banned blue jeans, according to the Charleston Daily Mail, "citing the need to maintain a professional atmosphere."

You wouldn't think this would provoke outrage. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is appealing the case to the state Supreme Court, for a variety of reasons. "The oddest argument," reports the Daily Mail, "is that a ban on blue jeans at work infringes on the constitutional rights of employees to freely express themselves."

Even as the blue-jean wars are being fought in West Virginia, leaders in Phoenix clearly understand the significance of public employees as ambassadors of the city. The ICMA's publication "What Works: How Local Governments Have Made the Leap from Measurement to Management" points to some of the ways Phoenix promotes customer satisfaction for its refuse-collection program (which, by the way, has an astounding 93 percent customer-satisfaction rate).

According to the report, Phoenix keeps its garbage trucks sparkling clean; drivers are encouraged to wave and smile at passersby; drivers are required to ensure that cans are left upright after a pickup; and all drivers wear an official uniform, which must be kept in tip-top shape, clean and pressed. The drivers also have a stock of pamphlets to distribute, describing other city services.

Is it just our imagination, or did states and municipalities (and even the federal government) have significantly better emergency preparedness for this latest string of hurricanes?

It takes a lot of guts to really measure performance in government, and New York City deserves a lot of credit for courage lately. The city has been measuring the performance of its schools on an A-F scale and discovered, to everyone's dismay, that one school that has been held out as a model by everyone (including Mayor Michael Bloomberg) just got an "F" on the city's own report card.

Naturally, some people are now questioning the grading system, and that's fair. Others are looking to dig deeper into ways in which the school failed, and that's good, too; it's the reason to measure success in the first place.

But whatever happens in this particular case, the city deserves an A for honesty. We've seen plenty of instances -- including those from past New York City administrations -- where this kind of news would be papered over and hidden from the public eye to the greatest extent possible.

One of the big questions in evaluating education is this: Who is the client? Is it the student? The parents? Future employers?

Many rankings focus on the students. But now the Boeing Company has come up with a means for evaluating the quality of students it gets from various colleges, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education . Boeing's work is coming out in a few weeks, and we wonder how it will impact the "best colleges" business.

Our old friend John Kamensky, of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, just passed along the link to a really great paper that explores the media hype about the growth of so-called Web 2.0 and the use of social networking sites. We strongly recommend reading it. According to an IBM Center release, "This report deconstructs the hype and presents the potential uses of social computing in government, discusses the barriers to Web 2.0, and presents what citizens think about Web 2.0. Interestingly, citizens in different age groups are open to new government initiatives to deliver services over the Internet using the interactive capabilities available in Web 2.0. The report's findings may be discomforting to government executives, but it offers clear strategic advice on how they must dramatically change the way they do business to be relevant in a Web 2.0 world."

Consider the plight of poor Gary, Indiana, named for Elbert Gary of judiciary fame. First Indiana decided to require its cities, including Gary, to cut property taxes dramatically. Then, while many other municipalities made up for the shortfall with income taxes, Lake County, in which Gary is located, rejected a local income tax, making it the only county in the state without one.

This leaves Gary between a rock and a hard place. It has cut city employees' pay by 20 percent and reduced the number of firefighters. Meanwhile, the governor has made it clear that he's not inclined to provide aid to the beleaguered city. We don't know how well Gary has been managed in the past. But we do know when it's time to take pity on a city for problems that are not of its own making.

Have you ever been the only person phoning in to a meeting from a remote location? It can be an altogether frustrating experience when you're the only one at the meeting deprived of any sense of body language: Are people rolling their eyes every time you talk?

With that in mind, we were particularly interested in comments made by Otto Doll, chief information officer of South Dakota, in a recent edition of Federal Computer Week. We've interviewed him over the years, and we've always been impressed by his wisdom and straight talk.

Doll's point was that videoconferencing is really coming of age and can help participants in a meeting "maximize their potential." Said he, "I'll go a little further back when everyone was trying to participate just on conference calls, and you were the outlier while three or four guys sat around a table. It's a much different world being on that conference call out there than being around a table. So the ability to turn around and use videoconferencing, being able to use something like SharePoint, where you are sharing documents or having people simultaneously doing things, or you are doing Webcasting so you are out there doing things across the Web, those types of facilities take folks a bit of getting used to. It's something that you do have to learn how to take advantage of."

Quote of the month, which applies to government management and pretty much everything else we can think of:

"In life, pick where you want to go as much as you can, work like hell to get there, and be persistent. Learn all the time. Do good. Engage everyone around you by pursuing your passions. Help others. Do good work. Bring cool stuff to life. Above all, start."

--from the Diego Rodriguez blog Metacool (passed along to us by our buddy, elections guru Doug Chapin)

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba